Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

I really liked Cat Winters' The Cure For Dreaming, so when I saw that The Steep and Thorny Way was a re-telling of Hamlet, done by an author I liked, well, I just HAD to read it.
My thoughts: meh.
It's very, very loosely tied to Hamlet. Very loosely.  Like, we get the dead father's ghost coming back and a few characters who have resemblances to Shakespeare's characters only in the most lax sense.  (Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern -- aka Robbie and Gil-- are treacherous, Laertes -- Laurie -- is hot-tempered, Ophelia -- Fleur -- grows flowers to remind us of the insanity scene and gets picked on by her brother.  But Greta -- Gertrude -- and Clyde -- Claudius -- don't follow the original much except that they marry, and the Horatio character -- Joe -- is so far removed from Shakespeare that his only resemblance to Horatio is that he is a confidant for Hannalee, who is Hamlet, of course.)  And no one dies except Hannalee's dad Hank.
The story itself works except that Winters made it so didactic that its MESSAGE is shoved right into the reader's face over and over and over.
Look, I agree that racism and homophobia are bad things, and I fight against them daily as a school teacher (along with sexism, which completes the Unholy Trinity of current political conservatism).  But this story reads like a white woman's penance for her racist ancestors.  There is no subtlety about the MESSAGE, no chance for the reader to discover lessons from history, no enlightenment.  It reads like a Sunday School story (except that Sunday School stories, at least Mormon ones, do not show homophobia and racism as evils).
The MESSAGE is good, but the book is so very much MESSAGE that it ceases to be a story.  Perhaps if the story had had some subplots so that there was more to the book than just the MESSAGE, I would have liked it better.

In response to a negative comment about this review on Amazon, I added the following response:

Yes, I prefer good writing as a method for making one's point.
May I suggest to you works that allow the reader to discover the point instead of preaching it to them in an off-putting way?  For works that show in a masterful way the ugliness of racism, try Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Scott's Ivanhoe, and Shakespeare's Othello and The Merchant of Venice.  Oh, and if you want YA that shows ugly, hateful racism and its consequences, try the Harry Potter series.  Other works which allow the reader to discover very powerful messages include Poe's "Ligea," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Tell-Tale Heart" (showing that psychotic murderers aren't always obvious to other people), Hawthorne's "The Birth Mark" (showing that domestic abuse is horrifying and deadly) and "Young Goodman Brown" (showing how life-ruining hypocritical religiosity can be), and O. Henry's "A Retrieved Reformation" (showing that sometimes rules need to be bent a little).
Winters did much better at subtlety in The Cure For Dreaming.  I expected the same of her in this book, but I was disappointed.  Had she taken the time to write Thorny more skillfully, it might have been a powerfully moving book for teen readers.  As it is, it's preachy.  Teens are turned off when someone preaches to them.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Book Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

(The cover glows in the dark!  I discovered this fact quite by accident.)

This is not a new book; it's from 2012.  But somehow I had never heard of it until I pulled a used copy out of a local neighborhood's little free library and took it home.  And it was fabulous!  Seriously, this is the BEST book I've read in quite some time.  It's just so layered and so clever that I had to keep re-reading parts to catch the subtleties.  (And I probably will read the whole thing again to catch even more.)
Basically, Sloan has taken the idea of an epic tale, removed the magic, and written a book set in a modern world but with an epic plot structure.  Mysterious group of people dating back hundreds of years? Check.  A quest?  Check. An old man/mentor who knows far more than he tells?  Check. An evil ruler with great power over many?  Check.  A journey to the Underworld? Check. A protagonist who does not realize his own abilities until they have been tested? Check.  Faithful companions who have their own reasons for the quest? Check.  A mysterious object?  Check.  It's all there, people.
Sloan took some real historical figures -- Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer, and Francesco Griffo, whom Sloan recasts as Griffo Geritzoon, the actual inventor of the italic typefont -- and he creates a mystery surrounding what they did.  It's encoded in an ancient book, and Mr. Penumbra's bookstore holds a library of people's attempts to find the message, which supposedly holds the key to eternal life.
Since so many reviews have already been written about this book, I'm going to skip the plot summary and just dive straight into refuting the negative reviews.
Zip Dementia on Amazon claims the characters aren't developed.
"Dementia" may be correct for this reviewer.   Clay, Neel, Kat, Igor, Penumbra, Deckle, Corvina -- even the super-minor characters like Tabitha and Daphne -- all have wants, needs, and goals.  Each works perfectly into the plot.  Seriously, did this reviewer even bother to connect the name Penumbra with its meaning? 
Multiple reviewers claim that Clay, the protagonist, has no personality.
Of them I ask, "Did you finish reading the book?"  How did you not notice that Clay is humble and believes he's nothing special, even though everyone else can see it?  Are you too stupid to grasp a character's personality when the book is told in 1st person POV?  Or do you need a 3rd person narrator to tell you everything?  Have you ever heard of "show; don't tell"?
Multiple reviewers seem to think there's too much Google in the book.
OK.  But the internet takes the place of magic in this tale.  And Clay's visits to Google -- the place of wonder, where the employees are all treated incredibly well and where so many brilliant minds work together to do amazing things -- is much like Frodo's visit to Lothlorian, or Lancelot's trip to Camelot, or -- you get the picture. 
And Google is the perfect modern method for finding answers, the answers that are escaping the members of our quest.
Maria Korchagin on Amazon says the book is "unresearched."
Really?  I suspect it is she who hasn't done her research, especially since she gives not one example of a mistake supposedly made by Sloan.  Perhaps if she'd taken the time to look up a few names, she'd have learned how much Sloan put into this tale.
Numerous reviewers refer to this as a mystery.
Um, no. It's a fantasy tale minus the magic.  There's no crime.  It's a puzzle to solve.
One goodreads reviewer claimed the romance isn't romantic. 
Clay, the protagonist, treats his preferred lover Kat with respect, giving her choices and the space to put work first when she needs to do so.  Maybe that's not romantic, but it's decent and considerate and feminist.  I'll take it.
Several reviewers claim they don't know much about computers, so this book isn't "for" them.
Good heaven, people, I'm an English teacher, and yet I grasped the computer-ish parts of this book just fine!  You don't have to know how to code in order to understand what happens here.  And remember: the internet and Google are the "magic" in this book.  They are the awesome and profound powers that help to provide conflict and resolution in the plot.
This is a fantastic book.  It's one I intend to read over and over. Still, it's probably not for everyone.
If you like fantasy stories, this is your book.  If you loved role-playing games back in the day when they weren't online, if you know creative people who make things and have vivid imaginations, this is your book.
If you want a mystery, however, or a bodice-ripper, this is NOT your book.
That being said, I'd give it more than five stars if I could.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"But They Were CALLING To Me!"

A few days ago I went to the local thrift shop and picked up a small armload of paperbacks for 50¢ each.
Yesterday, our librarian announced that, since our junior high is being absorbed into the local high school, there is no need for the teachers' library (of more "grown up" books) which has been located in the teachers' workroom for about 8 years.  He told us to take whatever we wanted.  I took about 8 thrillers and biographies.
And today I went to the local library in order to return some items -- and brought home a bag of things to read.
Also, my TBR stacks are teetering on the dresser and floor of the spare bedroom anyway, and all my bookshelves (in every room of the house except the bathroom) are STUFFED.
However, I did use self-restraint today.
You see, it's the public library's used book sale week.  And today was BAG DAY, wherein patrons could fill a large back of books for $5.00.
I held back and did not go.
You should be very proud of me.

But I could definitely relate to the teenage girl I saw exiting the local library as I was entering it.  She was holding a full-to-bursting tote bag of books and following her mother, who had a disgusted look on her face.  As I passed the pair, the girl whined loudly to her mother, "But they were CALLING to me!"
Oh my dear girl, I know EXACTLY how you feel!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Mormons And Divorce: Debunking The Myth

I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I've heard it said or implied in Church that LDS Temple marriages far less likely to end in divorce than what Mormons call "civil marriages" (which include any legal marriages -- even those performed by LDS bishops in LDS meetinghouses -- not performed in one of the LDS Church's 150-ish temples by those with special authority upon those who've -- theoretically -- met the highest standards of worthiness).
Many times, local leaders and/or teachers will flat-out state that God blesses those who marry in the Temple far more than those who don't, so that the marriages of the former have a God-given chance of lasting and all others take their chances with the US divorce rate of 50%.  Other Mormons have taken a more practical view, stating that it's simply that those who are willing to conduct their lives according to such high standards share common views and common goals, and thus they are likely more able to make their marriages work.
Yet, every time I'd hear this claim, I'd always remembered that I knew quite a few people who'd been divorced after marrying in the Temple and that most of the very best marriages I know are between people who never bothered with the Temple.
Thus, a few months ago, I started jotting down notes, adding to my lists as I went.  And I've come to the conclusion that, based on my own personal knowledge, there isn't a whole lot of difference in numbers of divorces from Temple marriages vs. civil marriages.
Let me give the specifics.
First of all, I determined the following: 1) These must be heterosexual marriages because gay marriage is too new and because it is not allowed in the Temple anyway. 2) I could only count people who lived in Utah or had been raised in Utah, LDS or not. 3) I could only count couples I knew personally or else knew their children very well and had heard in-depth stories concerning the demise of the marriages.
Then I listed the names of the couples, noting whether or not theirs had been a Temple marriage and indicating the reason for the divorce.
(One surprising find was that I could only list a couple of marriages wherein I knew that some kind of financial problem had been a part of the cause, and only a single instance wherein I knew that finances had been the main cause.  I have always heard that financial problems are the #1 cause of marriage break-up in the US, so this surprised me.  However, I do have a long list of people where I don't know the cause of their divorce, so perhaps this is where all the financial problems really are hiding.)
Here are the reasons for divorce and the numbers:

The man cheated on his wife: 8 Temple, 4 civil, (plus 2 more Temple marriages where the woman wanted to leave but had no way to support herself so she stayed)
The woman cheated: 1 Temple, 1 civil
The man wanted a new life or a new wife: 10 Temple, 4 civil
The woman wanted a new life or a new husband: 1 Temple
The man refused to get/keep a job: 1 Temple (plus 1 civil where this almost happened, but then the wife took him back for some unfathomable reason)
The woman was an idiot and the husband could stand it no longer: 3 Temple, 1 civil
The man was an arrogant jerk and the woman could stand it no longer: 7 Temple, 6 civil
The man was an idiot and the wife could stand it no longer: 1 Temple
The man had substance abuse problems: 2 civil
The woman had substance abuse problems: 1 civil
The man was gay but had hoped to be "cured" by marrying a woman: 1 Temple
The couple got married way too young and simply outgrew each other: 6 civil
The couple had not dated enough other people before marriage: 1 civil
The man had charmed the woman into marriage so he could get US citizenship: 1 civil
The man wanted access to the wife's bank account: 1 Temple
The man had mental health issues which the woman thought she could "cure": 1 Temple
The couple married too fast without getting to know each other first: 2 Temple, 2 civil
Unknown reasons: 6 Temple, 11 civil

Total number of Temple marriages ending in divorce: 43
Total number of civil marriages ending in divorce: 37
(I didn't count the "almost" divorces.)

Obviously, that's pretty close.  Based on my personal knowledge, I don't think I agree that Temple marriages are inherently more likely to last than civil marriages.
Other things that become apparent from my tallies:
Number of divorces where the man was to blame: 47
Number of divorces where the woman was to blame: 8
Number of divorces where both parties were to blame: 11
Number where the blame is unknown: 17
I'm going to state here that, based on my observations, it's more likely to be the guy who wrecks a marriage than the gal.

At any rate, I think I'm less likely than ever to believe that LDS Temple marriages are all that much less likely to end in divorce than other types are.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Story Starter?

Yesterday I needed to take some long-unused clothing to the DI (Deseret Industries. Whatever problems the LDS church has with other issues, it handles welfare and job training for its members and many others very well, hiring and training refugees, the physically and mentally handicapped, the recently homeless, etc. The DI is a chain of second-hand stores where many of these people get work experience.  It's also a great place to find craft items, costume pieces, and used books.), and naturally I wanted to go inside and hunt through their books as well. (Just because I have overflowing shelves and stacks of books doesn't mean that I don't want MORE books!)  So, after I unloaded my sacks of tee shirts unworn for a decade or so, I pulled the car around into the parking lot.
As I pulled into a space, I noticed a 20-something African-American boy (I'd say "man," but he was acting like an overgrown 8th grader, so "boy" seems more fitting.) tucking something under a red car parked on the other side of the grass divider from me.  He looked guilty as he saw me, then he scowled defiantly -- as if he knew this teacher would disapprove -- hitched up his saggy gangpants, and swaggered his way into the store.
"What a punk!" I thought.  "There's a trash can only 20 feet away!  He had to pass it to get to the door!"
When I got out of my car, I glanced toward the red car, expecting to find a fast-food sack, but it was a T-Mobile sack with an opened box poking out of it.
Weird.  Had he stolen a phone then tried to hide the evidence?  No, if he'd stolen it, he wouldn't have a sack.
I seriously considered  picking up the sack and taking it to the trash, but I didn't, for bending over at that angle would have hurt my back.
However, when I went inside the store --- which isn't all that huge, and which is nothing more than a big box, with no nooks in which to hide -- he was gone.  He must've gone out an employee exit.
I spent the next 20 minutes choosing Agatha Christie paperbacks.  But after I'd paid, I remembered the punk kid and the T-Mobile bag, so I looked for the trash.
The red car was gone, another was parked in its place, and the T-Mobile sack was gone -- although there were a few other garbage items left by other piglets kicking around within the surrounding 20 feet or so, which let me know that no custodial crew had come by to pick up.
Had some customer picked up his trash?  Or was it not trash?  Was he not really a punk kid, but perhaps a drug dealer leaving a stash for someone?  Or maybe he was a spy?
Yes, he was probably a punk kid, but there may be a story here in the making.  :D